The land, sky and rising ‘star’ of ‘Jagori Grameen’

Abha Bhaiya
Activist and Gender Trainer

Abha is one of the founder members of Jagori, a feminist organization set up in 1984 in Delhi. She has been active in the Indian women’s movements for more than 30 years. She has been working on a range of issues including women’s social, political and economic rights; the status of single women’s rights to health, bodily integrity and well-being; sex and sexualities; against militarization, fundamentalism; on food securities and livelihoods, and the increasing erosion of civil rights of the poorest.

Her major contribution has been in the field of feminist training methodologies, with extensive experience in conducting feminist trainings for multiple constituencies and in many different countries. Presently, she is coordinating a community-based project in one of the mountainous areas of North India.  

The land, sky and rising ‘star’ of ‘Jagori Grameen’

Where should I begin this travelogues’ history? Yes, it is indeed true that my journey has been as much internal as external. Both the outer struggles and inner duels have handed me the courage to continually do something novel and creative.

Today when I look back and from what I can see upfront, I cannot spot its sample or a map traced on paper. But there is a unique building–on one side, a strong brick and stone building and on the other, one of humans and their humane relationships. The beauty of the one created with the soil of affection, respect and mutual recognition is both stable yet dynamic. It offers new shade and roofs that transform from moment to moment.

Today this is the reflection of my heart that everyone knows via the name Jagori Grameen and Tara. Jagori Grameen is an endeavour that is based on work that has spread to and settled in over 100 villages, with diversity and empowerment as its foundations; the Tara Training and Retreat Centre is restricted by its limited space yet is still boundary-less. It gathers in its greenery all guests who visit it from all over the world.

I have not named this circle of friends as family. Even today, I search for a name for these densely populated villages of human relations because these faces are that of my friend, my love, song and the inmates of my innermost soul. But I will talk of them a little later.

To hunt for new dimensions in life has been my mission. In the earlier phase, I could not figure where I wanted to head. Though I did recognise where all I did not want to go. The shaping of my feminist politics happened via the incisive experiences of my own life. Because the family can only teach us how to stitch the threads of patriarchy, it can only make us rote learn the lessons of womanhood. I would always think that if being the kind of woman who is acceptable to society and family is part of our natural character, then why all the repetition, why do we have to learn what the mind says? But I was telling you about the relationships I built, the garden of those relationships, its flowers whose fragrance I wanted each one of you to savour.

This work started much earlier. 30 years back, Jagori was conceptualised in 1983 by the collective initiative of us seven friends: Jogi, Sheba, Runu, Manjari, Gauri, Kamla and me. The feminist movement had landed on the streets of big cities. The sea of feminism saw a surge after the gang rapes of Mathura and Rameeza Bi and gave birth to feminist politics.  It was an exploratory phase of small groups that had big-profound discussions, debates and action.  The passion for grassroots’ solidarity was gaining ground. I played the role of Jagori’s Coordinator for 12 years. In a small, one room courtyard- cum-office.  Everyone would find their corner all around the floor. Everyone shared all the work. No one even had a table. Only an old Hindi typewriter. Gradually, my belongings made way, the house shrunk and the books and files took more space. But honestly speaking, there was no distinction between home and office. Those days, work and home were not two different lives. It was not an office but a women’s hang-out cum guest house. Women and male friends who were associated with the women’s movement would stay at this office-cum-house each time they visited Delhi, eat together, chatted, wrote and read anywhere they found a place to spread rugs. A totally mobile space.

Debates and scrutiny of issues was a constant among us friends. Our hang-outs in the evenings were more productive than the work during the day. Sometimes at Sheba’s, or Gauri’s, Kamla’s or at my office-cum-house, we would hatch new plans—Kamla would write songs and we would all sing together, Sheba and Jogi we would sketch for the notebook, we would all collectively write poems, Runu would sing with force as she prepared for plays and Manjari would raise slogans at such a pitch that we would all get filled with zeal. At night in the barsaati (a small room on the terrace), we would prepare posters, leaflets and placards for dharnas and demonstrations. Sister Sharda, a tough comrade from the working-class settlement, would sit in a corner on the floor and write letters to newspapers—it was a unique office with no tables, chairs, computers or printers; wherever we sat was the office. Our work was done more on the streets than in the office. We would accomplish much despite being such a small group.

Thanks to the collective efforts of Action India, Ankur and Jagori, Sabla Sangh, a grassroots collective comprising women with initiative from poor, working-class was organised.  It was a different era. Not one of organisational identity but collective identity. The phase of institutionalization came later.

In the earlier phase, we oozed with enthusiasm about using women’s lens to view, understand and reform our personal experiences, the silences that gripped those experiences and the noise about social relationships. But how do we think and articulate our feminist expression especially when it comes to women who have been systemically denied literacy since decades? It was this debate that led to the dream of taking feminism to the beaten tracks of villages and gave birth to Jagori in 1983. In the decade of the eighties, Jagori made a serious and strong attempt to establish a consistent link with poor colonies in the city and distant villages. To share feminist values with women activists who worked in non-government organisations that were run with patriarchal ideas or by men was a special challenge because some organisations were not just patriarchal in character but also feudal.

Jagori’s chief identity as a feminist training centre had started to surface rapidly and is in fact still intact. In close association with the lives of urban and rural women and the aid of many processes, we used the feminist perspective to peel the layers of consciousness, society and state power. This became a continuum of training for us. The principle that the personal is political taught us women to grasp our own commonplace and different identities. 

We continuously participated in the painful give-and-take that accompanies the untying of the knotted bundles of compulsions and privileges of rich and poor women in our collectives; this further strengthened both our grassroots work and training.

Jagori has been a part of the feminist movement and all of us have been participating in it via these kinds of collectives. It is apparent that the feminist movement constructed “our” identity and of our “work” and we in turn gave it an identity. Both have constantly developed each other. The journey from Mathura to Nirbhaya has been our common race –be it the 1984 Sikh massacre, the Bhopal gas tragedy, communal riots and the question of terrorism, the demolition of Babri Masjid to post-Gujarat pogrom politics, or rising globalization, economic terrorism in the name of development – engaging with every issue has been the feminist movement’s deepest struggle.

The question is not only about the man-woman relationship. To raise a voice against the politics of violence and destruction, against every kind of injustice in our society, to oppose it and to understand the manipulations of those in power along with those at the margins: all this too has been a part of feminism’s definition. There is no issue that is not ours, that is not a women’s issue.

For the first seven years, Jagori’s office ran from my house. In those times of responsibility, we lived through new dimensions of struggles.

Working in poor, urban slums within certain limits brought for me certain kind of difficulties. On a personal level, the desire to live differently had started to grip me. I started to feel suffocated in the made-up appearances of big cities.

During this time, another dream started to make its place in my heart–the creation of a feminist space. A space that washes off the exhaustion of struggles. That allows one to breathe in solitude and beauty, where besides feminist training one could be creative in the idle shade of nature.

Another notion was pulling me towards villages—as a critique of the feminist movement. Despite being a multi-faceted movement, we had somehow abandoned the idea of working and living as close as possible to the grassroots. While we feminists had always developed a strong critique of mainstream development but we had not visualised an alternative. This search pulled me to the rural zone of Himachal.

Jagori Grameen was established in 2003. There was a special objective.  At the rural level, strengthen strategies towards women’s empowerment, to prepare young girls as feminist activists while also link them with mainstream education, to work along with male and female towards organic farming and establish ideas of sustainable, ecological practices.

Today, the real actors of this whole endeavour are the strong and committed Jagori Grameen team of about 40 individuals. Almost all of them have written their life stories, and have risen from the poor and marginalised communities of these villages and are fully familiar with the local life there. While being from its culture, they represent its transformed, new voice—a bold, humane initiative that has risen against gender, caste, class and other discriminations.

This tough team comprises both women and men but they share all beautiful relations. Many a times I think that once men become feminists, to talk to them, and to listen to and understand their feelings becomes so easy. And how they gradually become thoughtful individuals. Their familial relations too take on a new appearance. Their seriousness towards women’s pains touches a chord both inside and outside the family.

Raising questions about women’s rights slowly transforms into establishing women’s rights. In fact, some male comrades find it difficult to change the mind sets of their wives, sisters, mothers. It is a new challenge when they say, “I have understood it but please make my wife understand it”. Till now, only women were heard saying that we understand but you must make our husbands understand it too. They do not listen to us.

As far as the team’s young women and their lives are concerned, they have been able to take charge to some extent and this they have articulated well in their short biographies. But the journey to transform oneself is never over and every moment some new dilemmas and contradictions present themselves. The chief issue is the institution of ‘marriage’ and the choice to marry or be single. The biggest achievement of their lives is that they play a decisive role in financial, social and cultural aspects of their families. They have struck friendship with their mothers and have been able to use their new beliefs to understand their fathers and brothers and also make them understand. Simultaneously, almost all of them have consistently pushed their educational levels higher. There is hardly anyone in the team who is not studying further.

Jagori Grameen has its own well-founded identity. Both Panchayats and the police bring cases of violence against women to Jagori Grameen’s Nari Adalat stating that it ensures justice. We run three Nari Adalats, two healing centres and two youth knowledge and resource centres. They are all run as community-based organisations that see the participation of both Jagori Grameen’s team as well as the local community. Jagori Grameen’s team has not just taken its work to villages but also schools, colleges, Panchayats, judiciary, police stations and other such institutions; via a range of trainings, workshops, night meetings, it has disseminated strategies of incorporating gender-based justice and rights in people’s lives and work.

As far as the question of leading this programme goes, I play the role of an Advisor who directs its everyday functioning. Kamla takes care of the creative elements such as songs, poems, posters and training besides strengthening our public outreach and generating resources. Anup holds the team together besides handling finance and administration. In a way, we complete each other but this is possible only when you have a team like Jagori Grameen.

There are two major challenges. One, initiating processes to hand over the idea and functioning of Jagori Grameen to the community so that they can lead it. The second challenge is the one that most of our organisations face which is building second-rung leadership. I, Kamla and Anup have been executing the idea of Jagori Grameen on the ground to some extent. I have especially been searching for someone who while keeping the devotion of this team intact can also keep alive its spirit and pulse. This is both our need and dream.

TARATraining and Research Academy (TARA)

While Jagori Grameen’s work stands on a decade of experience, on the other side is the team that is known as the TARA team. TARA is a women-centered training and retreat centre. Kamla and I had long dreamt of creating one such space. In fact, Jagori had even purchased a plot of land near Delhi. But I had been certain that such a space should be in the proximity of a village, close to nature where life could be lived on different feminist principles. A kind of space where it is possible to unwind and listen to our inner vibrations, where we do not fight nature and all living creatures, flora-fauna, birds, mountain and rivers function as a co-operative, listening to and understanding each other. 

The weak presence of the feminist movement in Himachal, Haryana and Punjab, the falling numbers of girls and rising violence against women, along with the onslaught of toxic fertilizers and pesticides had drawn us to this region. To deepen my understanding of the similarities between the exploitation of women and land and to liberate both is my spiritual journey. Jagori Grameen and TARA are milestones of that journey.

TARA’s 18-member team is in itself a rather capable, efficient, industrious and sensitive group of women and men.  Everyone worked a lot and has constantly learnt and improved their skills. They give all visitors to TARA a homely experience. They treat all their guests the same, be they village women, men, young boys or girls, NGO workers or upper-class foreigners. There is also a small and charming farm that is built on the principles of organic agriculture so as to attempt growing different organic vegetables, fruits and cereals. 

TARA’s team works in a complementary manner. You cannot tell as to who is doing another’s share of work. Along with this, they have also integrated a feminist aesthetic and creativity in their lives. Their constant smile, empathy for each other’s pain and their anticipation of the guests’ needs are their special characteristic.

This is how both these teams comprising about 60 people have their own distinct identities yet complement each other.